The official website of educator & arts patron Jack C Richards

Using Discipline Specific Materials

Question:

Submitted by Abbas Masoumi, PH.D student ELT, Iran

What are the advantages and disadvantages of using discipline specific materials versus general academic materials in an advanced ESL class?

Dr. Richards responds:

Discipline specific materials offer the advantage of preparing students for the discipline specific genres, text-types and vocabulary of their disciplines, and also connect more closely with the learners’ interests and needs.

Vocabulary for Designing Textbooks

Question:

Submitted by Italo, The University of Queensland, Australia

How you know what vocabulary should be taught when designing your textbooks. How do you decide which words are appropriate for some levels and which aren’t?

Dr. Richards responds:

Textbooks writers usually consult any of a number of word lists that group words according to level and frequency. (Paul Nation’s vocabulary level’s test is a useful reference here). Increasingly reference is also made to corpus studies of word frequency.

In discussing knowledge of words, an important distinction is usually made between a person’s active, or productive, vocabulary and their passive, or receptive, vocabulary, since our passive vocabulary is generally much larger than our active vocabulary. In spoken English, for example, native speakers may use a relatively small number of words in daily conversation – as few as 1,500 different words – though they recognize far more words than they use. For passive vocabulary knowledge, researchers suggest that knowing a minimum vocabulary of 3,000 word families (which equals some 5,000 words) is required to enable a person to understand a high percentage of words on an average page of a text, and that 5,000 word families (some 8,000 words) is required to be able to read for pleasure. Twice as many words may be needed to read first-year university materials. It is also important to distinguish between knowledge of content words (those that carry the main meaning of sentences, such as nouns, main verbs, adverbs, adjectives and question words, e.g. why, when, what), demonstratives (this, that, these, those) and function words (those that express grammatical relationships, such as articles, prepositions, auxiliaries, pronouns, conjunctions and relative pronouns). There is a small, finite list of function words in English, but a very large set of content words. When people expand their vocabulary knowledge, they add to their knowledge of content words.

O’Keeffe et al. (2007: 37–47) suggest that based on their research on the frequency of items in spoken English, a basic or core spoken English vocabulary for second language learners contains several different categories of words:

  • Modal items: These describe degrees of certainty or necessity and include modal verbs, such as can, must, should, may, etc.; lexical modals, such as look, seem, sound; and adverbs, such as probably, definitely and apparently.
  • Delexical verbs: These are words with little lexical content but high frequency, such as do, make, take, get, and their collocations with nouns, prepositional phrases and particles.
  • Stance words: These communicate the speaker’s attitude towards something and include words such as just, whatever, actually, really, basically, clearly, honestly and
  • Discourse markers: These are words that are used to organize talk and monitor its 
progress, such as you know, I mean, right, well, good and
  • Basic nouns: These are nouns referring to common activities, events, situations, places and people, such as person, problem, trouble, birthday; days of the week; family members; and colours.
  • General deictics: These are words that relate the speaker to the world in terms of time and space, such as here, there, now, then and
  • Basic adjectives: These are words that communicate everyday positive and negative evaluations of situations, people, events and things, such as lovely, nice, horrible, brilliant, terrible and
  • Basic adverbs: These are adverbs of high frequency referring to time, frequency and habituality, such as today, tomorrow, always, usually, suddenly and
  • Basic verbs for actions and events: These are verbs describing everyday activities, such as give, leave, feel, put and
  • Some of these types of words are not found in vocabulary lists for ESL/ELT learners because such lists have often been based on frequency counts of written language, rather than spoken English 
Beyond the core vocabulary, O’Keeffe et al. (2007: 48–9) suggest the following targets for vocabulary learning: 
A receptive vocabulary of some 5,000 to 6,000 words would appear to be a good threshold at which to consider learners at the top of the intermediate level and ready to take on an advanced programme. Such a programme would ideally have the following aims:
    • To increase the receptive vocabulary size to enable comprehension targets above 90% (e.g. up to 95%) for typical texts to be reached.
    • To expose the learner to a range of vocabulary at frequency levels beyond the first 5,000– 6,000 word band, but which is not so rare or obscure as to be of little practical use.
    • To inculcate the kinds of knowledge required for using words at this level, given their often highly specific lexical meanings and connotations.
    • To train awareness, skills and strategies that will help the learner become an independent vocabulary learner, and one who can continue the task for as long as he or she desires.

For further information see the chapter on vocabulary in my book Key Issues In Language Teaching (Cambridge University Press 2015) and also:

  • Nation, I. S. P. (2001) Learning Vocabulary in a Second Language, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • O’Keeffe, A., McCarthy, M. and Carter, R. (2007) From Corpus to Classroom, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Applied Linguistics’ Position and Future

Question:

Submitted by Mehran Darabi, Azad University, Iran

  1. What is the position of applied linguistics in relation to other language-related disciplines?
  2. What are some future directions in applied linguistics? Are corpus linguistics and CALL possible future directions?

Dr. Richards responds:

Applied linguistics refers to the study of language in relation to real-world issues. Language teaching is one branch of applied linguistics, but applied linguistics also sometimes includes such things as language and the law, language planning, and language in the media. Applied linguistics differs from other fields of language study that may have a descriptive or explanatory purposes but do not seek to resolve issues in education or society.

Corpus linguistics and CALL have been a part of applied linguistics for many years.  More recent issues in applied linguistics include World Englishes, the use of technology and the internet in language learning and teaching, translanguage language use as well as identity in language learning.

Principles of the Eclectic Approach

Question:

Tina, Ridgeway Campus UNZA, Zambia

What are the principles of the eclectic approach?

Dr. Richards responds:

The term “eclectic approach” refers to a teaching approach that is not based on a single method (e.g. task-based teaching, or CLIL) but that draws on several different method principles that are made use of in practice. It is a problem-based approach to teaching that is based on the following principles:

  • What particular problem do my learners encounter in mastering this aspect of language or language use?
  • What procedures can I make use of from available methods and approaches that could be used to address this problem?

Evaluation, Use, and Adaptation

Question:

Submitted by Mohamed Bakkas, Rabat, Morocco

What’s the difference between textbook evaluation, textbook use and textbook adaptation?

Dr. Richards responds:

Evaluation refers to the process by which a textbook is reviewed and assessed according to a set of criteria. There are a number of check-lists that have been developed for this purpose.

Textbook use refers to how a teacher implements a textbook in his or her class, and involved collecting information on how much time was spent on particular activities, what grouping arrangements the teacher made use of, and how he or she used realia and other course components. The focus is on description rather than evaluation.

Text book adaptation refers to changes the teacher made to the book to make it more suitable to a particular class. Changes could include adding or dropping activities, changing activities, replacing topics or content etc.

For further information see my book Key Issues in Language Teaching.

Strategy Development for Better Listening

Question:

Submitted by Muhammad Shujaat, Saudi Arabia

In coursebooks, usually the sequence of a listening lesson proceeds from the general to the particular and then the students pair-check their answers. Is this proof enough that students are developing their listening or does there have to be another dimension of the strategy development for better listening?

Dr. Richards responds:

It depends on the kind of text students will listen to and what their purposes for listening are. Listening to a news story involves a different approach to listening than listening to casual conversation. So first one has to consider the type of text, the level of complexity of the text, what background knowledge students bring to the text, and the listening purpose.  The choice of listening task or activity that you use should provide guided practice in listening. Support for listening can be given through pre-teaching key words, by activating background knowledge, and by establishing an appropriate listening purpose. A series of tasks can be used that first require global listening, and then move to more detailed listening.

 

Commercial vs Teacher-Made Materials

Question:

Submitted by Abdu, Yemen

What are the virtues and the weaknesses of the commercially-produced materials as opposed to the localized teacher-made materials?

Dr. Richards responds:

Commercial materials are usually intended for a diverse audience of teachers and learners, so will often not be directly applicable to a local context and may need to be adapted and localized.  Teacher-made materials have the advantage of reflecting the specific context and the needs of learners in that context. An advantage of commercial materials is that they are usually prepared by experts and carefully edited and field tested before publication. With teacher-made materials there is no guarantee that the quality will match those of commercial textbooks, since teachers may not have had any training in materials’ preparation.

 

Free Discussion Class

Question:

Submitted by Mahmoud Ali Ahmadi Pour, Kian Language Academy, Iran

  1. What are the characteristics of a good free discussion class?
  2. Is there a specific design for a free discussion class?
  3. What techniques can be applied to the free discussion class so that it helps improve the students English proficiency both in accuracy and fluency?

Dr. Richards responds:

Discussion skills may be important for students using English in school and academic settings, as well as for those using English for business communications. However ‘discussions’ have often been a substitute for a serious approach to the teaching of spoken English. An example of this is seen in the ‘so-called conversation’ classes that are often a feature of English programmes at both secondary and tertiary level in many countries. These are typically unfocused sessions organized around the topics of the day drawn from the media and other sources. While the goal is to find engaging content that will generate discussion such activities have little impact on the development of students’ oral skills. Poorly planned discussion activities allow stronger students to dominate, are unfocused and do not provide for systematic feedback. If discussion skills are to be taken seriously as an important component of a spoken English course, rather than as a filler-activity, their nature and features need to be addressed systematically.

A discussion is an interaction focusing on exchanging ideas about a topic and presenting points of view and opinions. Of course, people often ‘discuss’ topics in casual conversation, such as the weather or recent experiences, but discussions of that kind are often merely ‘chit-chat’ – a form of politeness and social interaction. They do not usually lead to ‘real’ discussions where more serious topics of interest and importance are talked about for an extended period of time, in order to arrive at a consensus about something, solve a problem or explore different sides of an issue. It is discussions of this kind that are the focus here, particularly those that take place in an educational or professional setting.

Skills involved in taking part in discussions include:

  • Giving opinions.
  • Presenting a point of view.
  • Supporting a point of view.
  • Taking a turn.
  • Sustaining a turn.
  • Listening to others’ opinions.
  • Agreeing and disagreeing with opinions.
  • Summarizing a position.

Approaches to teaching discussion skills centre on addressing the following issues

  • Choosing topics: Topics may be chosen by students or assigned by the teacher. Both options offer different possibilities for student involvement.
  • Forming groups: Small groups of four to five allow for more active participation, and care is needed to establish groups of compatible participants. For some tasks, roles may be assigned (e.g. group leader, note-taker, observer).
  • Preparing for discussions: Before groups are assigned a task, it may be necessary to review background knowledge, assign information-gathering tasks (e.g. watching a video) and teach some of the specific ways students can present a viewpoint, interrupt, disagree politely, etc.
  • Giving guidelines: The parameters for the discussion should be clear so that students are clear how long the discussion will last, what the expected outcomes
  • Evaluating discussions: Both the teacher and the students can be involved in reflection on discussions. The teacher may want to focus on the amount and quality of input from participants and give suggestions for improvement. Some review of language used may be useful at this point. Students may comment on their own performance and difficulties they experienced and give suggestions for future discussions.

Speaking Skills for Specific Purposes

Question:

Submitted by Surya Vellanki, Nizwa College of Technology, Oman

What methods are generally used in teaching speaking skills to English for specific purposes (ESP) business students?

Dr. Richards responds:

It will depend on the level of the students and their particular needs. A needs analysis would be the starting point to determine the kinds of speaking skills they need to develop, depending on their work contexts. Then tasks should be developed that focus on the kinds of speaking performance they need to master. No matter what methodology is chosen (content based, competency based, task based), students will need to be able to handle authentic spoken exchanges relevant to their working contexts. There are many useful sources on the internet that provide models and examples of different kinds of transactions that occur in business contexts.

Preparing instructional materials for language courses

Question:

Submitted by Maria Giselle Agustin, Philippines

What are the criteria in preparing instructional materials for language courses?

Professor Richards Responds:

The following issues need to be addressed and how they are answered will determine the design for the instructional materials.

  •         What needs are the materials intended to address?
  •         What kind of syllabus will they be based on?
  •         What kind of teachers, learners and institutions are the materials intended for?
  •         What features are they likely to look for in the materials?
  •         What approach will the materials be based on, and what principles of teaching and learning will they reflect?
  •         How many levels will be involved, and at what level will the materials start and end?
  •         How will the material in the course be organized?
  •         How many units will it contain, and how many classroom hours will be needed to teach it?
  •         What  components will be involved, such as teacher’s book, workbook, tests, audio component, video component, digital and online components, and who will develop these?
  •         What will the format of units be, and what kinds of exercises and activities will be used throughout the material?

Advice on developing a new teaching unit

Question:

Submitted by Zainab Jaafar, Iran

I’m working in a scientific research centre in which the majority of the staff have very limited capacity in English language. This is due to receiving their undergraduates syllabus in the mother language (i.e. Arabic).

I am planning to start a unit for developing their English qualifications. I would like to have your advice in where & how to start, taking in consideration their different specializations such as chemistry, physics, invertebrates, geology, and biology. 

Professor Richards Responds:

I would suggest starting with a general English course to bring up their proficiency to at least a B1 on CEF. Then you could move to more of an ESP approach. A very good resource to use would be Helen Basturkmen’s book, Developing Courses in English For Specific Purposes.

New Educational Consultant role

Professor Richards has been invited to serve as en educational consultant to Cambridge English Teacher – an on-line teacher development site for English teachers – a joint project of Cambridge University Press and Cambridge ESOL. Professor Richards will be involved in planning new courses to be made available on CET and will also be able to respond to questions from members of CET. For more information see here.